Yuval Noah Harari: Hero and Hypocrite

Yuval Noah Harari: Hero and Hypocrite
Photo by Mauro Lima / Unsplash

"…People who shone at school and don't understand why that hasn't made them happy have Harari."

  • Helen Lewis.

That quote hit home. It has sat with me since August 15th, 2018. No, I don't remember the exact date because I had some life-changing revelation. I just looked it up when I was wondering where that quote came from and why it crosses my mind on a weekly bases. It came from an article in The Guardian, "21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari review – a guru for our times?"

Here's the context:

"And, of course, there is Harari's main question, which is here spelled out in a chapter heading. "How do you live in an age of bewilderment, when the old stories have collapsed, and no new story has yet emerged to replace them?" He contends that collective myths, such as money and laws, have allowed us to build huge, complicated societies far beyond what our biological limitations might suggest is possible. But in the secular west, religion is fading from public life. And in our globalized world, the idea of a coherent nation-state is threatened. What do we have left to believe in?"

Okay, here comes the part of the article I memorized after one read-through (something I'm not usually able to do).

"One of the answers, although the author does not provide it, is gurus, of which we have created a new class, each individually tailored to our needs. Some anxious middle-class women have Gwyneth Paltrow, who promises enlightenment through yoni steaming and dietary restrictions. Angry, disaffected young men have Jordan Peterson, whose banal advice about tidying your room is camouflaged with Jungian blah and sulky oppositionalism. And people who shone at school and don't understand why that hasn't made them happy have Harari."

Entre broma y broma la verdad se asoma—between jokes, the truth appears. When I read the lines about Gwyneth Paltrow and Jordan Peterson I laughed out loud. When I read the line about Harari, I thought Yup; you got me. After I read Homo Deus, I put Yuval Noah Harari on a pedestal. I even made an effort to memorize quotes from the book in both English and Spanish. Why? Well, I'll be honest, to try and sound more intelligent than I am. But also because I was developing my Spanish personality. Learning a new language allows you to explore a new side of yourself. If you're constantly quoting people in English, you're walking a fine line between a well-read intellectual and a pretentious asshole. But in Spanish, it makes you a refranero (someone who uses many idioms and quotes). It's also difficult to sound pretentious when you have a Spanish accent as blatantly foreign as mine.

“Fictions should be tools, not our goals. The idea of money and laws help us, but when we say we need to destroy this for the sake of the corporations profit or go into war for national interest, we are sacrificing ourselves for the corporation.” Las ficciones deben ser herramientas, no nuestros objetivos. La idea del dinero y las leyes nos ayudan, pero cuando decimos que necesitamos destruir esto por el bien de las corporaciones o entrar en guerra por intereses nacionales, nos sacrificamos por la corporación.

If by free will, you want to say we act according to our desires, then yes, we have free will. But we don't choose our desires.” Si por libre albedrío, quieres decir que actuamos de acuerdo a nuestros deseos, entonces sí tenemos libre albedrío. Pero no elegimos nuestros deseos.

"The best explanation of what consciousness is this—It's a byproduct of biological functions. Other explanations can be used by robots too. The only proof we have is that we report what we consciously experience, but a computer could do that too." La mejor explicación de qué conciencia es esta: es un subproducto de las funciones biológicas. Otras explicaciones también pueden ser utilizadas por los robots. La única prueba que tenemos es que reportamos lo que experimentamos conscientemente, pero un ordenador también podría hacerlo.

These quotes live with me. They aren't only applicable when discussing the insidious effects social media and data-collecting technologies have on our society, but they also help us to break down borders. Understanding that our biological drives and our "conscious" decisions are influenced by factors beyond our control doesn't mean we should feel powerless. If anything, it gives us power. The knowledge and tools Harari give us strengthen our self-reflection. We can think about our thinking better than ever before. Knowing that my choices are influenced by "biological algorithms" doesn't make me feel like a computer; it allows me to figure out what is culturally learned, instinctual and how both culture and biology can blur. Instead of becoming frustrated with other people's opinions and beliefs, I can try and better understand where they are coming from.

In other words, I'm a fan of Harari. So, by this point, you might be thinking, why the hell I'm calling him a hypocrite? Well, to keep the title short. I don't know if he's the hypocrite or the marketing, management, production, or public relations team around him.

Harari quotes, "Humans have always been better at inventing tools than using them wisely. A new film out today raises the alarm on how tech is being used to manipulate our minds & society on a daily basis. A must-watch for anyone old enough to open a social media account" when promoting The Social Dilemma on Twitter. Choosing twitter, a company with countless verified accounts that push antisemitic messages, as a way to promote something already doesn't go down well with me. The verified accounts make it easier for their voices to be heard, and yes, people like Harari (someone who spreads wisdom rather than hate) also have a verified accounts. But shouldn't someone with as much influence as Harari be able to say no to Twitter?

As Harari states, social media is a tool. I'm on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and even TikTok, not because I like them but because I want to reach people. Does that make me a hypocrite? Probably. Even though I prefer to say, "I contain multitudes." As a creative, it feels impossible to make a living without social media. But to reach people (unless you're already established), you need to interact with others to build an audience and "brand," as marketers like to say. I've tried my best to use the algorithm to my advantage. I only spend time viewing content from people I learn from and collaborate with. Even though that's half of the content I receive, the amount of mind-numbing, or even worse, polarising garbage on my newsfeed is depressing. When you spend a hundred hours a month creating content and even more hours figuring out how to get your content out there, to end up making less money that you put into it, that's… well, probably one of the reasons I don't fear death anymore—Es lo que hay. But social media only amplifies the depression that comes with being a struggling artist because you're inevitably going to compare yourself to others and get bombarded with people selling you their products.

Harari gets to have his cake and eat it too. There have been a few interviews where Harari states he doesn't have a cellphone because he is careful about preserving his time and attention. He even goes on to say, "Smartphones are really designed to grab your attention—to take over your attention. So that can be dangerous." However, all you need to do is google his name to see that he's all over social media. He's made a living many of us could only dream of, not only because he's intelligent, humble, benevolent, and well-connected, but because of social media. I don't doubt his brilliant books would have reached a certain level of success without social media, but his interviews, tweets, and other posts wouldn't have reached as wide an audience. His recognition, status, and team allow him to live without a cell phone and avoid its damaging effects without worrying if all the work and research he does will go unnoticed. He gets to do what most of us writers and creators want—write and create.

I would give my left nut to spend my life researching and writing instead of putting my time into the soul-sucking marketing void of hyper-capitalist hell. If Without Borders ever gets a quarter of those following Harari, I swear to you I will close my social media accounts. I don't want to be on platforms that contribute to climate change, mental health problems, and political polarization. And that's one of the reasons you're reading this on Ghost, a nonprofit, open-source, carbon-neutral organization. However, many articles on Ghost resources suggest using social media to reach an audience.

Do I want Harari's ideas to reach as many people as possible? Of course, but I'd love to see people as influential as him say no to social media (at least, the big platforms). They (the silicon valley hot shots) need to fix the algorithms, and we need to stop letting them make obscene amounts of money off of us by giving away our information. It's time to fix social media. And maybe one of the ways to do that is for influential people like Harari to move away from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to platforms that don't profit from everything Harari warns us about.

I will spend the next week researching the most ethical social media platforms, but I need your help. If you know about any ethical, social media platforms, please leave a comment or send me an email. And if you believe we should keep using the leading social media companies, I'd love to know how we can pressure them to change rather than rebrand i.e., Facebook to Meta.

Also, I'm currently interviewing people for my podcast, which will come out in November. If you'd like to be on my podcast, please email me at nolanyumawriter@gmail.com or comment below.

Please share! Just joking, kind of. God damn it, how the hell do I escape the social media hypocrisy?